On Friday the 16th of October 2015 I went back to my old school for the opening of the new Cookery Room. I slightly regret never having been taught any type of practical self-sufficiency while at school; not that I didn’t cook and bake from an early age, at home, with friends, and with various youth organisations, but I’d have enjoyed learning a little of the theory behind what we were doing. Equally, while some of my classmates, and later on my various flatmates, spent at least as much time in the kitchen as I did, others never learned to cook at all. That’s just my age group: scarcely a week goes by without some survey or other telling us that the young adults of today spend more time and money eating takeaways or ready-meals than on preparing and eating fresh food from scratch.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of interest from the school-age population in learning how to cook – ordinary dishes as well as fancy cakes and celebratory meals – and most of the impetus for the project came from the school’s student council, who also came up with the location of the room. Back in my day, we had most of our language lessons in a building known as School House, a two-up, two-down Victorian property hidden behind the far more impressive Gymnasium, which had been a church in a former life. Now that the school has expanded into additional buildings, languages are taught elsewhere, and so the upper floor of School House was ideal to house the Cookery Room and a separate Prep Room.
Arriving at the school on Friday, I found the main hall full of current and former staff and pupils – not to mention multiple tables of entries for the school’s annual bake-off contest. Over the past few years since its inauguration, the competition has averaged around 20 entries, but this year they had 97. Fortunately, no one was expected to taste all of them, although the winners in each class – teachers and pupils (divided into roughly equal sections by age-group: the Year Sevens had so many entries they had a class all to themselves) – were judged by local 2013 Great British Bake Off contestant, Howard Middleton.
As well as announcing the winners and runners-up in each class, Headmistress Valerie Dunsford gave us a brief history of Domestic Science in (or more commonly its absence from) the school’s curriculum. From its founding in 1878 until the early part of the 20th Century, Sheffield High School – in common with other Girls Day School Trust schools – concentrated on academic subjects. However, in the 1900s a long-drawn out battle took place between the Trust and the Schools Inspectors over whether pupils should be taught ‘housewifery’. The Trust argued that their aims were to educate a new generation of teachers, and other professionals, rather than homemakers, but eventually a compromise was reached, and for a time ‘domestic hygiene’ appeared on the curriculum.
In the 1950s and 60s, the school once again acquired a Domestic Science teacher, but she had to leave unexpectedly in 1966 and was never replaced. She was, however, at the event on Friday, looking very smart indeed, and was presented with a fine bouquet of flowers. We may have had a vague revival of cookery at the school between 1988 and 1990 – various people including me remember a cookery room being developed – however no one can remember being taught there or name anyone else who had classes in the room.
After watching the ribbon being cut to officially open the room via video link in the hall (also streamed to every classroom throughout the school), we trooped over there to see it for ourselves, and spot our names on the list of donors to the project. Following that, we walked over to the Sixth Form Centre for a fine buffet lunch, and were each presented with a little cake to take home with us.
For anyone wanting to play along at home, the recipe used in the school’s bake-off was a Mary Berry Lemon Victoria Sandwich Cake developed especially for the GDST. I haven’t had a go yet, as my freezer is still packed with the results of what happens when you don’t properly line the tin for a polenta-almond-lemon cake, but I shall be trying it out the next time I bake.